Phil Ponsonby: How Midcounties Co-op responded to Covid-19

We speak to the society's CEO about the organisation's reaction to the unfolding coronavirus crisis

Covid-19 has affected different co-operative organisations in different ways. At Midcounties, the largest independent co-operative in the UK, a unique challenge has been managing the situation across the diverse range of businesses it operates – from food and funeralcare to travel and childcare.

We spoke with Group CEO Phil Ponsonby, on how the society reacted to the coronavirus crisis as it unfolded – and how it has been supporting colleagues across several very different sectors.

“Like everyone, we were watching the news and monitoring events worldwide,” says Phil Ponsonby, from his home in Warwickshire. “Because of our travel business, we were getting travel guidance from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office early on, but I think, as with most people, we started realising this was going to have a significant impact at the beginning of March.”

Midcounties held its first Covid-19 steering meeting on 10 March, mobilising its continuity plan and focusing on five key areas: resilience; colleagues; financials; suppliers; and customers and community.

“We wanted to make sure that we were putting the right amount of focus in each  area,” says Mr Ponsonby, “especially given our range of businesses.” 

Midcounties operates in food, travel, childcare, healthcare, funeralcare and post offices and utilities. “We have had to temper and balance off the enthusiasm in food, where demand is through the roof, with a travel business that is dealing with angry and worried customers,” he says. 

“If you looked at the businesses in silos, you’d make very different decisions. We have to look at them as a collective.”

Related: Retail – the new frontline

The executive and key members of Midcounties’ leadership team meet for daily briefings to speed up decision making. Mr Ponsonby says this enables the organisation to be more flexible – with suppliers, for example.

“The national distribution network, which normally runs quite close to capacity anyway, is under real pressure. We are aware that despite their best efforts they can only distribute so much in a week. So introducing and supporting more local suppliers was quite important. Making decisions quickly and getting them on board fast was a big part of that.”

One such supplier is Aldens butchers, a 225-year-old family business which pre-lockdown supplied the Houses of Parliament and Oxford University. Facing closure, it now supplies Midcounties food stores in Oxfordshire.

This approach has also helped the organisation rapidly develop and expanding new approaches, such online pharmacy services and home deliveries. “It’s about looking at our customers, thinking about how we can provide services to them in new ways, and adapting quickly.”

Midcounties colleagues are sharing stories of giving a thumbs-up, to keep morale high and to show that as co-operators, they are “all in this together as #TeamMidcounties”

Colleagues first

Colleagues have been at the forefront of Midcounties’ thinking throughout the crisis. “Colleagues present us with questions and challenges, and at every step we have run by them our policies and what we’re looking to do. We’ve made some bold decisions around personal protective equipment (PPE); there has been a sourcing challenge because retailers are competing, but all our colleagues are equipped with gloves, masks and hand sanitizer, and there are screens in stores and pharmacies.”

Two-way communication has been key, adds Mr Ponsonby. Midcounties’ Colleague Connect website is used daily to give out information and get feedback. “Some challenges that colleagues raise are thought-provoking and some are quite specific, for example ‘should I put hand sanitiser over my gloves?’ Having that open contact with colleagues where they can say what they like to everybody, including me, means you get some really good feedback but also that colleagues don’t have to wait too long to get answers to questions,” he says.

Midcounties appointed a new chief HR officer – Clare Moore – last summer, whose “dynamic and innovative approach has played out really well in this situation” and in January, the society partnered with national charity, GroceryAid. Through this, all Midcounties colleagues can call the confidential GroceryAid helpline 24/7 for free advice, counselling and other support. In the current crisis, the society has worked with mental health charity Mind to develop a bespoke video for colleagues, and has also set up Welfare Wednesdays, where colleagues can take part in different activities, such as quizzes. 

“More than anything, it’s about keeping in touch,” says Mr Ponsonby. “Some colleagues who are self-isolating or working from home live on their own – that’s very lonely when you’re used to an office environment or your social interaction is usually dependent on work colleagues. So we’re encouraging virtual social interaction in all parts of the business. Every Friday evening, for example, we have a virtual drinks gathering with the executive team and key leadership committee, with something like a quiz or music competition. It’s a chance to reflect on the week and have a bit of a break, which is important in these tough times.”

The society has furloughed around 1,300 colleagues, predominantly from childcare and travel. Some from these businesses were deployed to food stores, while around 100 were retained to work in the virtual call centre. 

“We took the decision early on that we would maintain furloughed staff on 100% pay for the first four weeks, and we’ve recently extended that to align to the government’s extended lockdown,” says Mr Ponsonby. “Alongside that, the executive team has also taken pay cuts. I’m extremely proud of them – none of them questioned it, it was something they volunteered to do. That’s just part of their thinking.”

He has witnessed this attitude throughout the business. “Our co-op colleagues have really been going out of their way,” he says. “Over the Easter weekend for example, one of our store managers was handing out bottles of water to people in the long queue. Little things like that make a big difference. Colleagues are thinking about how they can help and that makes me really proud.”

The future

Midcounties is hosting its annual general meeting (AGM) on 16 May. “One of the things we did last year – and I promise this wasn’t as a result of any kind of premonition – was to run one of our half-yearly meetings online, to test the technology, format and appetite among members. It went really well, and was actually one of the best attended meetings, because it’s convenient.” The event will be an interactive one, with members able to vote and ask questions in a live environment. 

Midcounties’ financial year is to 31 January – so although last year’s accounts won’t be directly impacted by Covid-19, future forecasting will. “It’s hard because we’re obviously not sure how long this situation is going to go on for. We’ve been really detailed and active in building assumptions, double checking and changing them, interpreting government policy. We’re a £1.5bn business, but it’s made up of lots of different businesses, so the implications are profound.”

He adds: “More than anything, we are keeping co-op values at the heart of our decision making. We try to make sure we are doing the right thing by our colleagues, members, customers and communities.”

Integral to Midcounties’ future is its ‘Survive, Revive and Thrive’ strategy. “All teams – both centrally and our trading teams – have been asked to look at their operations and break down their activities into these three areas,” he says.

“Right now, there is a concentrated operational focus. But in terms of revival, how will we reopen our businesses and accelerate some of the things we were going to do anyway? And then thriving is about what the new landscape looks like and what that means for our businesses. Over the last few weeks we have really been testing our businesses and are thinking more creatively and innovatively. We’re also closer to our colleagues, members and customers than ever before; that’s one thing that certainly isn’t going to change.”

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